Bruno Corà – Before reflecting on your work, I think it is worth saying something first about those aspects, those characteristics that have inspired you, that have guided you up until now. What were these aspects when you decided to embrace the vocation of “an-architect,” when that is you realized and acted on this calling to practice architecture by doing art?
Gianni Pettena – They are the elements that can already be recognized in the works I produced in Italy at the end of the sixties and that can be found again, amplified, almost purified by the attention that you can’t help paying in relating to a context as historicized and even too conditioning as the European one, in the works done in the United States between 1971 and 1973. My production in this period has been identified and classified, for instance in the thinking and essays of James Wines as well as in Alan Sonfist’s 1983 text Art in the Land, as “art made by architects,” along with the work of Gordon Matta-Clark. Matta-Clark and I were regarded by the critics as “environmental artists,” that is as operators in the field of art who went on talking about questions of architecture while using the instruments of art, moving away from the technical feasibility of an architectural product to produce an architecture that spoke instead of theoretical propositions and experimental work and not of “definitive” architecture. And this because the instruments that other artists were using in that moment seemed to us to be languages suitable for speaking of architecture too. For that matter, many artists were talking about architecture, and still do: James Wines is an artist who speaks of architecture, Gordon Matta-Clark and I myself are architects, trained at a school of architecture, but we express ourselves more in terms of art.
B.C. – Evidently there were experiences that led you and even allowed you to think that this was possible. What I mean to say is, was there, prior to this vocation of yours, a reference to authors who, like Pannaggi for Futurism or Schwitters for Dada for example, had tackled the relationship between the work and the environment, between architectural space and the plastic work. Do such references exist?
G.P. – Without doubt. Sant’Elia and Depero, to start with. But these are references reconstructed later on, following certain original phenomenologies.
B.C. – So what shaped the course you took?
G.P. – I got my formation in art galleries like L’Attico or Toselli. At bottom my references were chiefly people of my own generation who were expressing themselves with a freedom that was unknown to me, as I felt obliged to express myself within the themes and conventions of the practice of architecture through the project. Instead I was looking, like others in those years, for a way to practice architecture by going beyond the phase of the project, seeking forms of physical expression that were not methodologically rigorous, at least not as rigorous as the ones provided by the canons of the rationalism of the thirties, which were still taught in the schools of architecture.
[…]B.C. – In terms of your roots instead, and therefore of the relationship with the environmental context of your birth, of your northern origins, which could be defined as the De re aedificatoria of the Alpine world, that way of conceiving architecture, has all this had some influence, or did everything emerge in relation to the context of the Florentine architecture into which you were then “plunged?”
G.P. – There are memories that resurface, those of the physical, natural environment of the Alps, not the Alpine built environment: the ones that I call non-conscious architecture (although not at that time, but later) and that then reemerge in the form of architecture as well. In Monument Valley after all, in the early seventies, where I limited myself to listing or cataloguing the “architecture of the wind,” I realize, looking at the pictures today, that they closely resemble those memories, the natural works of architecture of the Alpine environment of the Dolomites. This undoubtedly crops up again in Landscapes of Memory, a work from 1987, profiles of mountains cut out of plexiglass that I carried around in a suitcase, for an exhibition to be held at Otranto. Profiles of the mountains that have accompanied me, as backdrops and as scenery, in the early years of my growth and maturation: from as far back as I can remember, my confines, the “scenery” in which I operated, were these mountains, the ones that reemerge in this work. I go to Otranto, which is in the southernmost part of Italy, and I take with me these “landscapes remembered by heart.”
B.C. – Then there was the impact, instead, of the elevated, designed, planned environment of the Renaissance city, with which it seems in fact that you immediately had a desire for interference, for relationship, for a comparison-confrontation, a desire to modify what already existed, to make room, to lay claim to a space. When was this exactly?
G.P. – Some time around 1968.
B.C. – And this was the Pettena-Arnolfo Dialogue in San Giovanni Valdarno?
G.P. – Yes, it was a work carried out on a building attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, which was interpreted and subtracted, in the volumes of its galleries, from the perception of the public, with a mural decoration that temporarily enclosed the empty spaces of the galleries and reconstructed the original volume, bringing out, among other things, the design of the façade.
B.C. – But adopting a pattern, a graphic, minimalist scheme, I would say.
G.P. – A pattern that was strictly contemporary with those years, and that in any case expressed through the material and the design of the façade the need to create space, to claim it back for its own present, in a city wholly constructed in the past and inherited from it. At bottom this project already displays an attitude that, as I was able to observe later going through my work, has always been present, in demonstration perhaps of how my beginnings have after all never been contradicted: the attitude of establishing the relationship with an environment, a building, a context, through a modification, a reappropriation. This relates to the preparation of the exhibition in San Giovanni Valdarno, my first public work, as well as to more recent works.
[…]B.C. – Paper is another work carried out in the United States?
G.P. – Yes, in 1971. It is an installation, an interior in which the space is completely filled with hanging strips of paper, and the visitor who comes into it creates his own space and his own path by cutting the strips of paper that fill the space, at whatever height and in whatever way he wishes.
B.C. – The expressions of so-called “programmed art” that had surfaced in Europe, and in Italy too, for example the experiences of Gianni Colombo with “elastic space,” the work of Enzo Mari, De Vecchi, Boriani, had these been of any interest to you?
G.P. – Yes, especially those of Gianni Colombo. Elastic space, space that is modified as if in relation to the presence of a visitor, a space that feels the presence of the body of whoever passes through this space. But perhaps the most interesting of these spaces for me was Lucio Fontana’s “black space,” his “black” environment that was presented again at Spazio dell’Immagine in Foligno in 1967.
B.C. – On the North American side, were you aware of the experiments with trenches carried out by Nauman, or by Sonnier?
G.P. – By Nauman, by Sonnier, by Fulton, as well as Bernt and Hilla Becher’s classifications. They were experiences that sometimes took place almost contemporaneously with my own, it is hard to say which came first. However, they were ideas of which the artist, in some way, made himself the interpreter.
B.C. – The images of this route made by visitors through space by cutting the strips of paper have a visual value. What importance do you attach to this visual value?
G.P. – A great deal of importance, for once again it is the route made by the human being that gives meaning to space, it is the human body that acts as an instrument for the measurement of a physical space by moving through it. Whether this is an interior or an exterior does not matter, even though in an interior the physical space has a value and a rigor of meditation that external space often does not have. The external space often involves me on the plane of performance, seen therefore as a place from which the actor-constructor has just quit the scene. It is always a theatrical scene, a symbolic space, and the same is true for natural space.
B.C. – What prompted you to design and then make the Wearable Chairs?
G.P. – It was another route in the city, and it was the presence of the body, essential as an instrument for the connotation of this object that, although it has all its customary symbologies, only makes sense here if it is worn. This chair only has meaning if it is worn, otherwise it is disarticulated. And in fact, in this case, it only made sense when worn. Taken into a museum space afterward, these chairs are like votive offerings, they are the relics of a previous and now vanished vitality, a way of reminding those who come afterward that these objects are now devitalized because the body is no longer wearing them.
B.C. – And this drawing of the deviation of a river was part of the set of works produced for Trigon ’72?
G.P. – Yes, the title is Instantaneous Birth of a Tree. A piece of the urban fabric is hypothetically cut out and raised through the birth of a tree, and it is as if this portion of urban fabric, while it remains suspended, is still a part of it. In a way, it is again the revenge of nature on architecture, that is to say the supremacy of nature over architecture, as in those other works realized in Minneapolis, Ice I and Ice II, genuine investigations of urban spaces in which nature reconquers spaces that have been used and worked by human beings, re-naturalizing them and re-connoting them through its own aesthetics, through its own logic. In this case it was the temperature of the winter nights in that particularly rigid climate that was exploited, and the result was that nature was able to modify the nondescript urban context.
B.C. – So an approach to American urban topology very different from that of Dan Graham’s House of America, where the intent instead was sociological comment through the contextual analysis of an anonymous North American suburb. I would say that here, instead, we are more in consonance with that group of experiences that can be ascribed, as many critics did at the time, to the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, as well as to a visionary architecture, I’m thinking of Sant’Elia for example.
G.P. – But Red Line, my work in Salt Lake City which made the whole municipal boundary visible through a stripe of color, was an intervention in the urban context that was again intended to emphasize the aspect of the route, of behavior, the anthropological value, almost like the action of a snail that marks its territory with its trail of slime… For me it had the significance of repossession of an environment, in which every action carried out acquires a different meaning from the one that the same action takes on if performed outside this boundary.
B.C. – Still bearing in mind references that belong more to art than to architecture and city planning, how much consideration did you give to the Spatialist experience of Manzoni’s “line” in the years in which you conceived and realized this work?
G.P. – The support, as I recall it, was different. Manzoni used rolls of paper as a support. Here the “ribbon” was the road itself, which remained to document the division between included and excluded territory as well as the route that had been followed physically, because those forty-five kilometers were actually covered, they were physically painted. So the red line on the road is also the documentation of an action, of something you have done, of the route you took, and your appropriation of this space.
B.C. – But the Spatialist code remains.
G.P. Which can be compared with that of Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and many Land Artists who produce a sign, a route in urban or natural contexts, by tracing it physically.
B.C. – The dialectic with the plan of the city and its extent seems to consist in the fact that this red line traces an inclusive perimeter of the city. Inside this perimeter one reads the Cartesian fabric of the city itself, whereas the perimeter is absolutely anti-Cartesian, it is opposed to this.
G.P. – It is more organic, dictated by the physical conformation of the place. Yes, what emerges here is the contradiction determined by the intervention of humanity, which imposes its laws on a natural context: Red Line, along with the Tumbleweeds Catcher and Clay House, the other two works produced in Salt Lake City, constitutes a trilogy in which the supremacy of the quality of the language of nature over architecture is claimed. As do the Already Seen Portable Landscapes, which are records of the observations I made crossing the United States, the mid-west, the zone of the Great Salt Lake, of the Rocky Mountains, the dams, the roads, Monument Valley… Memories that were organized and catalogued in this way on my return, after about two years of wandering, observation and discovery.
[…]B.C. – Here we are at Canazei and, what a surprise, a new work of architecture!
G.P. – Apart from my house on Elba, this is the only building I have constructed from scratch. In this case too it is a dialogue, this time not with Arnolfo di Cambio, but with Sottsass’s father, Ettore Sottsass Senior, and is an extension of the building designed by him in the thirties and built at Canazei, in the province of Trent. The intervention is a symmetrical doubling of the original building. The role of the first building, and its connotations, including those of style, are recognized and transferred into the new building. The old and new are separated, constructing a dialogue, and the new is split into two volumes, also set apart, so as to create, together with the old one, a piece of urban fabric. The pedestrian intersection that results from this is a piece of city, a square, a place for meeting, for conversation. The three volumes are linked by staircases and bridges so that they function as a single organism. Just one roof, as with the house on Elba, covers the building. And the glazed connection between the two blocks means that the complex is perceived as a single construction. The new building and the original one “construct” a new façade, but as soon as you turn the corner, at the back, the new building assumes the responsibility of its own time and speaks a more contemporary language. From the inside you can see how the new building is broken in two, almost like in a “petrified forest,” and holds a dialogue with the contemporary urban fabric.
B.C. – But here there is architecture, it is obvious! So you have fallen back on the craft of the architect…
G.P. – Yes, it is true. But only relatively, as this is in reality a citation of nature, it is a petrified forest but still a forest, a citation of what forms a backdrop to the building. For that matter, in the end even on Elba nature is in some way “petrified”.
B.C. – Here at Canazei there is a strong, decided pronouncement, with a substantial ideological content, on the idea of construction. The building that results becomes a unique exemplar.
G.P. – It accepts the confrontation with the real world. There is a historical continuity, there is conceptual continuity, there is the declaration that it is possible to work in a historicized context by creating one’s own space without compromising the rapport with history.
B.C. – Let us bring this survey to an end with a work like that of Cassino, which seems to close the circle. In Archipensieri there is the icon of architecture represented by the temple, but the temple, with its tympanum and columns, is reconfigured, and at the same time the work presents itself as a sculpture, since it is made up of free elements in space, producing sometimes contrasting directions in it, which in turn produce binary and ternary relationships, through which sculpture and architecture are integrated, or clash. They are presented contemporaneously, just as art and architecture can exist contemporaneously and be integrated.
G.P. – It is a circle that closes only to open again immediately. They lay claim to the same spatial dimension and the same language. These elements in space need a context of their own to make sense. They take on the role of showing the extent to which the space of art and the space of architecture are assimilable: when space has to make itself understood in some way, it is better for this to occur in the form of an installation, a happening, which certainly illustrates it with greater clarity than architecture, where only rarely can such results be obtained. It is far more difficult to attain these results when you are encumbered by functions, budgets and the limitations imposed by rules and standards. The inventor of spaces needs to document his own process of thought with more continuity and more freedom.
Bruno Corà - Gianni Pettena, AAVV, ‘Architectures Expérimentales 1950-2012 – Collection du Frac centre’ HYX Editions, Orléans